The American Presidents—Washington to Lincoln

President’s Day is one of those weird American holidays where no one quite knows why it’s there or what it is, but it’s a day off so no one asks too many questions.

The holiday kind of celebrates Washington’s birthday (February 22), kind of celebrates both Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays (Feb 22 and 12), and kind of celebrates all 43 presidents all at once.

In any case, it seemed like the perfect time to research presidents for 60 hours and post a 7,000-word, 30-hour-late post diving into who each American president really was and what he really did. (My apologies to all non-American readers—you did nothing to deserve this.)

In deciding where to start, I looked at the whole line of presidents, and it turns out the story of the United States divides cleanly into three even parts, each 75 years long:

thirds

I’d like to eventually go through all 43 American presidents, but for today, it made perfect sense to start out with the first and most unstable part of US history, the one bookended by the two birthday boys, Washington and Lincoln, and the section during which the country’s borders, laws, principles, and national identity were all still forming. Let’s call it the “Shaping the Nation Era.” This era was a time when major precedents were being set with every new administration, allowing the 16 presidents discussed below to shape the nation in a deeper way than anyone today could have the opportunity to.

Here’s a chart depicting the results of every election and how the political parties have shifted over time, further exemplifying how much more chaotic the Washington-Lincoln years were than the rest of US history:

PartyVotes-Presidents

Before we get started, eight general thoughts I had during my research:

1) 17/43 presidents, or 40% of them, were named John, James, George, or William.

2) There was a Mustache Era. The 44 years between 1869 and 1913 saw 9 presidents, 8 of whom had mustaches:

Mustache

And never before or after this era did any other president have a mustache.

3) There was a ridiculous run of terrible presidents between 1841 and 1877.

I call it The Bad President Circus, and we’ll cover most of it today. Below is a chart showing just how dire this period was. Each square represents one of the 44 presidencies, in order (so Washington is all the way on the left and Obama is all the way on the right). The red squares represent the bottom 10 ranked* presidents:

squares

Starting with William Henry Harrison and ending with Ulysses S. Grant, The Bad President Circus is a run of ten presidents that include eight of the bottom ten in history. A grim time.

4) It’s crazy to me that each of the most famous presidents has at least one parent who has no idea their son turned out to be anything special.

George Washington’s dad died when he was 11. Imagine dying and never knowing that your son is the great George Washington.

Thomas Jefferson’s dad died when he was 14.

Andrew Jackson’s dad died when he was an infant and his mom died when he was 14.

Abraham Lincoln’s mom died when he was 9.

It turns out that this is more the rule than the exception—of the most recent 10 presidents, only JFK and George W. Bush have two parents who know they raised an American president. The concept blows my mind.

5) A president’s “last words” is a funny phenomenon. I included the below presidents’ last words whenever they were known. They’re mostly poetic and grand, clearly having been planned in advance and thought through carefully. The funny thing is picturing a president lying on his deathbed, surrounded by family, and his entire mind focused on when to say the key “last words” sentence. If he says it too early, he then has to not say anything again and that gets awkward if someone asks him a question or he lives a couple more days (this may have happened to Jefferson, as you’ll see). If he waits too long, he dies without saying the correct last words. One final quandary to deal with for these men who worked so hard to shape their historical legacies.

And some thoughts specifically on the first 16 presidents:

6) People were obsessed with dying back then. Learning about these 16 men, their families, friends, and contemporaries, it’s astounding how much easier it was to die just 200 years ago in the US. It seems like children had no more than a 50% chance of making it past age five, and once an adult hit 50, something like catching a cold or eating spoiled food could very well mean you were dead five days later. Tragedy was a much more prominent part of life in those times.

7) Books were everything. Many of these early presidents received some or most of their thorough educations from reading books on their own. It’s a reminder of how groundbreaking the invention of the mass-produced book was. Until then, the only way to learn something was through having a human explain it to you in person. The book allowed a hungry learner (which these 16 guys almost all were) to take things into their own hands and absorb the thoughts and knowledge of thousands of other people’s brains. And looking at it from the other side, it allowed someone like Abraham Lincoln to publish the Lincoln-Douglas debates and transmit his thoughts on slavery to tens of thousands of people throughout the country, as if each book were a mini-version of him and he could suddenly be everywhere at the same time.

8) The story of the first third of the nation’s history can be pretty well summed up with one sentence:

Aggressive (and controversial) expansion of United States territory exacerbated the nation’s tensest and most divisive debate—slavery—by forcing the question of whether the new territories should be able to self-determine whether or not to allow slavery, highlighting the haziness around where state rights end and federal power begins and accelerating the nation toward Civil War.

Sure, there were debates about the National Bank and tariffs, over the treatment of Native Americans and dealings with Europe, but most of the major issues these 16 presidents faced were contained somewhere within that italicized sentence.

*A note on rankings: The presidential ranking I used for each president both in the chart above and below each portrait was taken from here, which averages out a large number of polls taken over time and spanning the political spectrum.

And off we go—

1) George Washington

washington

Presidency: 1789 – 1797 Lived: 1732 – 1799 Ranking: 3/43

Slave Owner? Yes.

His Deal: A man’s man. No high school, no college, no law school, just a lot of manly prudence and wisdom. A key officer in the French and Indian War and the head general in the Revolutionary War, he was the only person everyone trusted to handle being the first president responsibly. And for good reason—after winning the Revolutionary War, he resigned as commander-in-chief rather than seize power, and when he took the office of President, he made sure not to act like a king or dictator, limited himself to two terms, and left office with a peaceful transition of power—setting these as key precedents for the future of the country. He’s one of those people Americans aren’t allowed to say anything bad about.

His Presidency: A generally peaceful time, although he had to deal with Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, his two key cabinet members, having tantrums at each other over differing views of policy the whole time. In his farewell address, he cautioned against the evils of partisanship and the dangers of getting involved in foreign wars—Americans have heeded those words and to this day, we remain a nonpartisan country that never gets involved in unnecessary wars abroad.

Things He Can Brag About:

  • Being the first president
  • Being nicknamed “The Father of Our Country”—fun nickname to have
  • Being the one to select Washington, D.C. as the location of the nation’s capital
  • Being the only president to win an election with 100% of the electoral votes
  • One day, Jimmy Carter decided that Washington should be named a “six-star general,” so now he’s the highest-ranking military officer in US history
  • Being on the quarter, the one dollar bill, and Mount Rushmore
  • Having nine trillion things named after him, including being the only president with a state named after him
  • Being the largest distiller of whiskey in all of Virginia

Things He Hopes We Don’t Remember:

  • He owned slaves his whole life, and his estate owned over 300 when he died. He had them all freed after his death, but not a minute earlier.

Things He’s Annoyed About:

  • Losing all of his teeth by the time he took office
  • His overbearing mom who disapproved of the Revolution

Other Notable Facts:

  • He apparently had quite a sassy side—he was a great dancer, an interior decorator, and a passionate fashionista.
  • Martha Washington was 5’0″ to his 6’3″.
  • His first inaugural speech was 183 words long and lasted 90 seconds. His second one was even shorter.
  • He was generally filthy and hated taking baths.
  • His annual salary was $25,000, equivalent to over $500,000 today, and he spent 7% of that on alcohol.
  • He wouldn’t shake anyone’s hand because he thought it was beneath the president to do so, and bowed instead (Thomas Jefferson reversed this tradition a decade later).
  • Upon his death, his estate was worth $1 million, or $19 million in today’s dollars.

Last Words: “Tis well.” Washington was too cool to give a shit about last words.

 

2) John Adams

John Adams

Presidency: 1797 – 1801 Lived: 1735 – 1826 Ranking: 12/43

Slave Owner? No.

His Deal: A short, fat, highly educated intellectual whose philosophies on government played a critical role in the founding policies of the nation. His drafting of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1779 provided much of the thought and structure for the eventual American Constitution, and he was on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence (and was the original man chosen to write it before he passed the honor on to Thomas Jefferson). He was also the one who nominated George Washington to be commander-in-chief and John Marshall to be Supreme Court Chief Justice, both of which turned out to be brilliant moves.

His main issue was that he wasn’t one of the cool kids. Most of the founding fathers were quiet, dignified Southerners, and they didn’t particularly like or embrace Adams, or invite him to their birthday parties. He spent his whole life frustrated about this, and it really did matter—with a larger circle of powerful friends (Washington was one but he died right after his term ended), he might have had more support when he was the president, accomplished more, been elected to a second term, and be on Mount Rushmore and the ten dollar bill today.

His Presidency: Adams’ presidency had some successes, like preventing a war with France when many were urging him to fight, but he spent most of his time in office with Hamilton and Jefferson yelling in his face from both sides of the aisle. He received little support from either the Democrat-Republican Party or his own Federalist Party, and was ousted after one term (joining his son as the only two one-term presidents of the country’s first 50 years).

Things He Can Brag About:

  • Being the first vice president
  • Being the first president to live in the White House
  • Opposing slavery before it was cool. One of the only pre-Civil War presidents to do so openly.
  • Creating the Navy
  • Inventing the tradition of fireworks on the Fourth of July
  • Speaking seven languages

Things He Hopes We Don’t Remember:

  • His passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which prevented people from criticizing the federal government, because he was sad everyone was yelling at him (it was repealed the year after he left office)

Things He’s Annoyed About:

  • Having to follow George Washington, of all fucking people
  • Being the second president and somehow managing to not end up on Mount Rushmore or any coins or bills
  • His presidential nickname, “His Rotundity,” mocking his short, fatness

Other Notable Facts:

  • He and Thomas Jefferson formed a decades-long pen pal relationship after their times in office, and both died the same day, on July 4, 1826—the country’s 50th anniversary.

Last Words: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Kind of embarrassing to talk about another president in your last words.

 

3) Thomas Jefferson

jefferson

Presidency: 1801 – 1809 Lived: 1743 – 1826 Ranking: 4/43

Slave Owner? Duh.

His Deal: A dignified, highly respected, possibly dickish member of the Virginia elite, Jefferson was profoundly intellectual and knew and did basically everything—on top of his political achievements, he spoke four languages, studied zoology, architecture, botany, religion, law, history, literature, and the violin, and invented both the swivel chair and the folding ladder. Jefferson was one of the major architects of the new country and founded an entire philosophy of governing followed by successors like Madison and Monroe.

His Presidency: He did some major things, most of them in his first term, like presiding over the outlawing of the importation of slaves (but owning and trading slaves inside the country were still okay) and sending Lewis and Clark out to explore the West. But his crowning achievement was acquiring the entire middle of the country from Napoleon’s France for $15 million ($234 million today, or 42 cents/acre) in the Louisiana Purchase:

National-atlas-1970-1810-loupurchase-1

Things He Can Brag About:

  • Drafting the Declaration of Independence in his early 30s, about the same age some of us are when we’re drawing unimpressive stick figures on a blog instead
  • Being on the nickel and Mount Rushmore
  • Founding the University of Virginia

Things He Hopes We Don’t Remember:

  • His fetish for owning hundreds of slaves and not freeing them ever
  • That he knocked up his own slave, Sally Hemmings, who was actually 3/4 white and the half sister of his wife (his wife’s father had six kids with his own slave, of which Sally was one)

Things He’s Annoyed About:

  • His wife saying, “Please don’t ever get remarried after I die” and then dying a second later. Jefferson was only 39 and had to go the next 44 years without a wife because of this, which was super annoying. Especially since his hypocritical wife had been a widow when she married him.
  • Before marrying his wife, proposing to a woman named Rebecca Burwell and being rejected
  • The fact that after he drafted the Declaration of Independence, it went before Congress for review, who made substantial changes to it, cutting it down by one fourth, which according to Jefferson, “mangled” what he had written
  • John Adams thinking he and Jefferson were best friends and writing Jefferson 1,000 letters later in life that Jefferson had to respond to
  • Being put on the $2 bill, the one small bill to go out of style

Other Notable Facts:

  • He was Washington’s Secretary of State, but resigned from the cabinet after Washington kept siding with his rival Alexander Hamilton. Washington never forgave Jefferson and never spoke to him again.
  • He hated making speeches, only making two during his eight years as president—his two inaugural addresses
  • Jefferson learned about various European cuisines while traveling and brought his favorite back, introducing to the US ice cream, waffles, macaroni and cheese, and French Fries.
  • He had a weird amount of pets. 2 dogs, 8 birds, 9 horses, and 2 live grizzly bears, which Louis and Clark (somehow) brought back for him from their expedition.

Last Words: “Is it the fourth yet?” This wasn’t his plan. He said his desired last words a few hours earlier:

I have done for my country, and for all mankind, all that I could do, and I now resign my soul, without fear, to my God, – my daughter to my country.

But then instead of dying like he was supposed to, he woke up one more time, forgot that he wasn’t supposed to talk, and asked the date. Then he died, and now his last words are forever, “Is it the fourth yet?”

 

4) Alexander Hamilton

a-hamilton-national-portrait-gallery

No wait, he wasn’t a president, so stop thinking he was.

 

4) James Madison

madison

Presidency: 1809 – 1816 Lived: 1751 – 1836 Ranking: 13/43

Slave Owner? Yup. Owned hundreds.

His Deal: At an adorable 5’4″ and 100 pounds, Madison is our pixie president. His greatest achievements happened before his presidency, when he was considered the most influential thinker behind the drafting of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, granting him the nickname “Father of the Constitution.” He was then one of three authors of The Federalist Papers, a series of articles building support for ratification of the new Constitution.

His Presidency: He began his presidency continuing the policies of Thomas Jefferson, but soon got wrapped up in the hideous War of 1812 with Britain, which the US lost (there are differing views on this, and a bunch of commenters have suggested that the War of 1812 a tie. It depends whether you think the US was secretly trying to take Canada or not—if so, they lost).

Things He Can Brag About:

  • Weighing under 100 pounds as a grown man, an unbelievable feat
  • Being Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State and the one who actually negotiated the Louisiana Purchase
  • According to my research, being the first president to wear long pants. Unclear what this means the previous three wore.

Things He Hopes We Don’t Remember:

  • The fact that late in his life, after his presidency, he became obsessed with his legacy and paranoid to the point of altering letters he had written or others had written him

Things He’s Annoyed About:

  • Being the only president to be physically driven out of the White House or shot at in war while being president (both by the British in the War of 1812)

Other Notable Facts:

  • The Star Spangled Banner was written during his time in office

Last Words: “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear. I always talk better lying down.” (In response to a niece asking him what was the matter)

Page 2 (Monroe to Tyler) →

Page 3 (Polk to Lincoln) →

  • Jared Larson

    This is just a fantastically well wrote article that I wish I could have utilized for APUSH last year… However, under Andy Jackson, you have stated “Winning the popular and electoral votes in 1924 and losing anyway”, when I believe 1824 is more accurate, and what you meant. 😉

    Cheers on a great article, I cannot wait for the next installments,
    Jared

    • Wait But Why

      Good catch—fixed!

    • Khephra

      Unfortunately your reply isn’t well WROTE…

  • Tony D

    Millard Fillmore’s Presidency years should be 1850-1853.

  • Jon B

    This is fascinating and I’m not even American. Looking forward to the next instalment. You’ve written Compromise of 1950 in the Millard Filmore section (that’d be a great name for a band)

    • Kenny T

      The Millard Filmore Section

      I like it!!

      • Kenny T

        I’m stupid

        • Kenny T

          I’m stupider

  • Splendid

    You are such a fantastic writer. I truly enjoy reading your prose. When you put a quote up in italics it feels so sterile to read, but then once I read your reflection to the quote, it is so natural and easy-going.

  • Anon

    Another fantastic post! 🙂

    Although it worked, Lincoln might want us to forget that he arrested Maryland’s legislature to stop them from succeeding. Oh yeah, and Sherman’s march to the sea happened on his watch. Dick move.

    http://teaching.msa.maryland.gov/000001/000000/000017/html/t17.html

  • Raefels

    “Americans have heeded those words and to this day, we remain a nonpartisan country that never gets involved in unnecessary wars abroad” – Is this irony?

    • Anonymous

      Please…

      • Major

        Haha yes, that’s definitely supposed to be a joke.

    • Seriously?

      Do you seriously think the answer to this question isn’t painfully obvious?

    • KevinFFF

      I’m really hoping Raefels question is ironic.

  • anonymous

    So fun to read. I wish history was taught with this humor. So what if it’s irreverent. It’s the first time I saw these guys as human beings. Made them interesting. This is good: “Drafting the Declaration of Independence in his early 30s, about the same age some of us are when we’re drawing unimpressive stick figures on a blog instead” It’s true. How come people used to accomplish so much in so little time? What’s wrong with us? (not that this blog isn’t an accomplishment)

    • boso

      interesting question. Maybe it’s because these guys were very rich and got an excellent and thorough private education at an early age? (not sure if that’s true.)

  • boso

    Apologies accepted. I scanned the article, the thing with slave-owning is interesting. Can’t you write a blog about how slavery was abolished? The worldwide process I mean, and the key figures worldwide.

    (I wish our historylessons at school weren’t solely about industrial revolution, WW1, WW2 and cold war.)

  • Pingback: Precedents of Presidents Day Presidents | AllPolytics Now()

  • reader

    I hope your non-American readers don’t use this as their sole source of US history. Good god.

    • Anonymous

      You’re making the assumption that non-Americans don’t study anything about US history in school. That’s wrong. And anyway, even if we did it still wouldn’t be much worse than using Wikipedia as your sole source of, well…anything.

    • john

      Give us a little more credit – that would be like assuming that all Americans believe Nelson Mandela was Africa’s president :-)….a little silly don’t you think?

    • CIPHER

      What do you mean by non-american? America is from Alaska to Chile (Is a continent) Unless you mean European, Asia etc…..

  • Henry

    Great article Tim. Just one comment, and I don’t mean to be “dickish”, but in your second paragraph, you mentioned 44 presidents. There have only been 43. Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th president since he served two non-consecutive terms.

    • Wait But Why

      You’re right. But there have been 44 presidencies. Cleveland made this annoying forever.

  • Rahim

    One thing you forgot about Jefferson (much to his delight no doubt), was that he was also the first (but not the last) Vice-President to commit treason while in office. He leaked the identities of three US foreign agents (The XYZ affair, look it up) while serving as Adams’ VP, in order to cause a scandal, embarrass Adams, and thus help his own chances of succeeding to the Presidency in the next election.

    • alx

      That is not treason by US law. He would have had to directly aid an enemy and there would have had to be two witnesses and he would have been executed for it.

  • Ryan

    Man you got jokes!

  • Christine

    There is no way this project only took 60 hours! You’ve got to be the world’s most expedient reader and eloquent writer. I enjoyed this even more than I enjoyed reading Alice Provensen’s The Buck Stops Here in elementary school (and did I ever read and reread that book!)

  • Smit

    Great post, but the $2 has not been abolished: http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/faqs/Currency/Pages/denominations.aspx (see the section titled “Why did the Treasury Department remove the $2 bill from circulation?”)

  • bob

    um… why is Obama’s square not red?

  • Matt

    I’ve been commenting on this blog since 2006!

  • Kesstra

    I don’t know who you are but I just read your article and I think you are funny, smart and witty in an awesome sort of way. Can’t wait till the next article on our presidents.

  • boso

    I just watched ’12 years a slave’ ten minutes ago and started scrolling through this blog again. It made the recurring slave owner sentence a bit harder to read.

  • George

    “Americans have heeded those words and to this day, we remain a nonpartisan country that never gets involved in unnecessary wars abroad.”

    – Was this a joke? It seemed to be said rather matter-of-fact-like but surely no one can actually believe this?

    • Sterling Archer

      That was also sarcasm since apparently now we’re saying whenever we do it.

      • Archer fan

        Brilliant

  • Rodger Lewis

    you said 11) James Polk was the only one to be president and speaker of the house. this is not correct as gerald Ford was speaker of the house.

    November 7, 1972
    Ford is elected to his thirteenth and final term as a Congressman from Michigan. Despite Nixon’s landslide victory, the Republicans do not gain many House seats. Realizing he may never achieve his goal to become Speaker of the House, Ford contemplates retirement after 1976.

    October 10, 1973
    Spiro Agnew, under investigation for accepting bribes and income tax evasion while Governor of Maryland, resigns as Vice President of the United States.

    Vice President

    October 12, 1973
    Ford is nominated to be Vice President by Richard Nixon. He is the first Vice President nominated under the 25th amendment to the Constitution.

    November 1, 1973
    The Senate begins hearings on Ford’s nomination as Vice President.

    November 15, 1973
    The House Judiciary Committee begins its hearings on Ford’s nomination as Vice President.

    November 27, 1973
    The Senate approves Ford’s nomination by a vote of 92-3.

    December 6, 1973
    The House approves Ford’s nomination by a vote of 387-35. Ford takes the oath as the fortieth Vice President of the United States in front of a joint session of Congress.

    January-July, 1974
    With Nixon embroiled in the growing Watergate scandal, Vice President Ford travels the country speaking on behalf of the administration’s policies. Ford remains an advocate and spokesman for the Republican Party, attending fundraisers and campaign events for Republican candidates.

    April 30, 1974
    Nixon releases edited versions of the Watergate tapes containing White House conversations.

    May 9, 1974
    The House Judiciary Committee begins impeachment proceedings against President Nixon.

    July 24, 1974
    The Supreme Court orders Nixon to turn over the unedited versions of the White House tapes.

    July 27-30, 1974
    The House Judiciary Committee approves three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon.

    August 1, 1974
    Nixon’s Chief of Staff, Al Haig, advises Ford that he should prepare for a transition to the Presidency.

    August 6, 1974
    Ford attends a cabinet meeting and tells Nixon that while he will continue to support Nixon’s policies, he can longer speak on the issue of Watergate to the media and the public.

    August 8, 1974
    Nixon announces his decision to resign in a televised address.

    President

    August 9, 1974
    Ford is sworn in as the 38th President of the United States. In his swearing-in remarks, Ford announces “Our long, national nightmare is over.” Following the ceremony, President Ford goes immediately to work, meeting with Congressional leaders, senior White House staff, transition advisers, senior economic advisers, and foreign emissaries.

    • David Hackney

      Gerald Ford for House Minority leader. He was not Speaker of the House, since the Democrats controlled the House from the the 1940s through 1996.

    • Haley

      Where in this timeline does it ever say Ford was Speaker? That is inaccurate.

  • Anonymous

    Who’d ‘a thunk that WaitButWhy could make even American history interesting?
    Also yaay APUSH! If you don’t plan on making the next two installments consecutive, at least finish them by May 😉

  • Jeremy T.

    In regards to James Madison wearing “long pants”: the first three wore knee breeches with stockings, like old-timey French aristocrats. Madison switched to modern-style trousers.

  • Abe Lincoln

    Holy Fuck that was good. Loved the ending.

  • majadope

    As a Brit, watching the John Adams biopic (with the incomparable Laura Linney as Abigail Adams) was an education in itself. This has filled in a few more of the gaps for me. Thank you.

  • Pepin

    I don’t want to nitpick (well, maybe a little), but your facts on Washington’s manumission of the slaves he himself owned is off. He did not free the slaves upon his death. It was certainly longer than a minute more, as they were willed to be freed upon Martha Washington’s death, and ultimately freed two years after George Washington died. http://www.mountvernon.org/employees-navigation-level-1/encyclopedia-top-level/slavery/george-washington-and-slavery

  • M. Snuffer

    Not real sure where you got your information on Lincoln but its incorrect! He did have slaves! weather he owned them or not I’m not sure but the white house had an all black staff which included the in house staff as well as the grounds keepers!!

    • Jane

      Um, people who are paid for the work they do are not slaves. Just being black did not make a person a slave.

  • Voracious Reader

    Great post. I loved reading some of the lesser known items about each of these man, good or not so much. And, bob, the reason there is no red square under President Obama’s name is because he’s still in office and there can be no consensus until he’s finished his term. Your wishing it doesn’t make it so.

  • Mike J

    Not only Madison — Abraham Lincoln was shot at in Fort Stevens in DC during the Civil War too! Great blog, Tim, and greetings from Juba!

  • Anonymous

    I love this blog. I really can’t stress that enough. I don’t care when you are a day late posting your self imposed many thousand word penance because it is so damn GOOD! It is like you are in my head sometimes. And always cited and researched…phenomenal! But I live in Baltimore and I have to say, to honor the American patriots who died fighting, WE DID NOT LOSE THE WAR OF 1812!

  • Anonymous

    Can’t add to my last post but here is why we didn’t lose…had we lost, we would have been re absorbed into the British Empire. And the Brits stopped kidnapping our sailors on the high seas after the war concluded.

  • Mark

    Lincoln was a military dictator who used the Constitution as toilet paper. Hardly the number one president.

  • Anonymous

    W

  • Anonymous

    Wm H Harrison was our BEST President.

    Dying 30 days into his term, he had no chance to pile more laws and taxes on the nation.

  • Anonymous

    Loved the original sketches of the Presidents! Very talented artist! You should branch out from stick figures more. (On a closer look, was tracing paper was involved? These sketches are too good! 🙂 great analysis too… pitch book worthy 🙂

  • André

    What about the rumor(or fact?) that Mr Lincoln was gay? Any comment?

  • Mary

    I love your posts, and I’m really looking forward to your future musings.

  • James

    Great article, but item #2 states:
    “The 43 years between 1861 and 1913 saw 9 presidents, 8 of whom had mustaches.”

    There are 52 years in between 1861 and 1913, not 43. Also, there were 11 presidents during this time, not 9 (you left out Lincoln and Johnson), and 9 of them had mustaches, not 8 (again you forgot Lincoln).

  • James

    Great article, but item #2 states:
    “The 43 years between 1861 and 1913 saw 9 presidents, 8 of whom had mustaches.”

    There are 52 years in between 1861 and 1913, not 43. Also, there were 11 presidents during this time, not 9 (you left out Lincoln and Johnson).

  • Don

    Nice piece! Thanks.
    Jefferson can also brag about being on the $2 bill, FWIW.

    • Don

      oops-just noticed you put that under annoyances. kudos.

  • jaxe

    great cheat-sheet on US Presidency history. as I’m not from the US and never took any history lessons on that, I’m gonna take everything on this blog as truth. hah!

  • Gus

    “Americans have heeded those words and to this day, we remain a nonpartisan country that never gets involved in unnecessary wars abroad”.

    This is one of the best things I have ever heard. Your facetiousness is delicious, and a tasty morsel I look forward to every Tuesday (which sometimes doesn’t come til Wednesday or Thursday).

  • I love you.

    This is the first post I’ve read on this blog and I feel a sleepless and shameless binge on the horizon. Your writing is perfection and I love and appreciate the wide range of topics and incredible thought and humor throughout this post. Can’t wait to work through the backlogs and absolutely can’t wait to read the next installments of this particular series. Major thanks!

  • Ken

    I haven’t looked through the other Comments yet, so if I’ve repeated what others have already mentioned…SOOORRRRYYYYYYYY!

    “According to my research, being the first president to wear long pants. Unclear what this means the previous three wore.”
    They probably wore “breeches”, which only came down to mid-calf… which doesn’t make them shorts, but doesn’t make them “long pants” either.

  • wobster109

    Since they’ve decided on their last words, they should totally just say them again after saying anything else. Then they can talk to family and still have the intended last words.

  • Jennifer

    Wow. What a read. Really worth the time. You put a lot of work into this.

  • Jennifer

    And I know you are a writer (not a dj taking requests), but could you please do a blog post on tattoos; at least consider it maybe?

    Okay thank you.

  • Scott B.

    James Polk was born in 1795, not 1775. Keep up the awesome blog!

  • Cyn

    When will the next presidents post be?

  • john

    You have roped me in by this blog……when will the next presidents post be?

  • Anonymous

    Jackson did not believe in a flat earth, check your sources. That blurb was made up by Dixon Wecter.

  • Jessica

    Who ARE you people and why have I not found you sooner? I love this post and will now make my way through your entire blog not blog website.

    /O\
    ——-
    l
    ^
    / \
    I would like to add this stick figure artistic expression of myself to your also most beautiful stick figure people collection. That is how much I like you. Stop looking at me so weird, I have a hip to the left disorder that causes my arms to stay completely straight. K, thanks.

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  • Don

    This is lots of fun. Some of the “facts” are wrong: For example, Washington was actually 6 feet, not 6’3. They measured him when he was in rigor mortis; his tailor knew the truth. He really had a great sense of humor: He named a tom cat he owned “Hamilton” because Hamilton went after every woman with skirts (and with modern flair, destroyed his career when he admitted to having an affair).

    You were too kind to Jefferson, a passive-aggressive prick who was hypocritical to boot. I’m a fan of Hamilton, who actually understood the economy and ran circles around the bucholic Jefferson. And Washington sided with Hamilton. Hamilton was also our only bastard founding father.

    You missed what made Madison most famous: He was America’s first Goth, always wearing black. And his wife Dolley was the first founder to be photographed.

    I agree about Jackson. He really was a hothead bordering on insane.

  • Nicholas

    I think that everything typed made a great deal of sense. But, what about this?
    suppose you typed a catchier post title? I mean, I don’t wish
    to tell you how to run your website, but what if you added a title to possibly get a person’s attention? I mean The American Presidents—Washington to
    Lincoln | Wait But Why is kinda plain. You might glance at Yahoo’s home page and see how they create news headlines to grab people to click.
    You might add a related video or a related pic or two to get readers interested about everything’ve written. Just my opinion, it
    could bring your website a little livelier.

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    • Barry Geibel

      When you’ve got such well-thought out articles, delivered in a very easily accessible format, you don’t need catchy headlines to draw readers in. One article about the fermi paradox and I was hooked. Keep it up, I’m always anxious to read the next article!

    • jaime_arg

      The whole point of this blog is that it’s not like the rest of the internet. Buzzfeed and Yahoo are click-crazy and will do anything to make you click.
      Wait But Why readers know that they are in for quality text when they come here, no matter what the title is.

  • Anonymous

    when is the next installment?

  • Allen Apul

    Dude!! Don’t leave us hanging. You can’t start something this good and not finish!!!!

  • Antonio Pantalones

    I, too, am anxiously awaiting the next installment.

  • Dan

    I’m not an American, but I thought this was a tremendously interesting read. I hope you finish this series as I would love to read the descriptions of the more recent presidents.

    Love your work generally.

  • Anonymous

    John Adams didn’t speak 7 languages. John Quincy Adams did 🙂

  • Al

    Woah this is awesome! When is the next installment?

  • this is one of the best blog posts here yet along with from 1,000,000 to graham’s number

  • Uncephalized

    As for the alternative to Madison’s long pants, I would suggest knee-length breeches and hose–seems like that’s what the Colonial fellows were wearing in all those paintings. Don’t forget about the tricorn hats!

  • “Things He Can Brag About:

    Creating the first US income tax by signing the Revenue Act of 1861.”

    LMFAO. Legendary stuff there. Leftists, when disarmed, always show their stripes.

  • dwamyjie

    A map of the US as it was back then would be pretty helpful at the beginning, for us international viewers. 🙂

  • AnarchyPrime

    Lincoln

    Slave Owner? Clearly not.

    So long as you ignore the fact that he was Commander-in-Chief of 40,000 men forced to labor and fight in the Union army against their will.

    and a whole array of clever human manipulation tricks to gain the support he needed for his agenda from politicians and the public.

    Which included suspending habeas corpus, shutting down critical newspapers, having his critics arrested and thrown in jail, rigging elections, debasing the currency, killing draft protesters, pursuing a policy of genocide against the Sioux, and the wholesale destruction of Southern towns during which civilians, including slaves, were raped, beaten, robbed, and murdered.

    Creating the first US income tax by signing the Revenue Act of 1861

    Stealing someone’s hard-earned money is something to brag about, eh?

    Things He’s Annoyed About
    “BOOM! Headshot!”

    • jaime_arg

      I fucking hate taxes but they do not qualify as theft. I suggest you look for an anarchist country and go live there. I highly doubt the US is going to eliminate taxes just to please you.
      Humans are not civilized enough that they can live without a government. Not yet at least.

      • AnarchyPrime

        I fucking hate taxes but they do not qualify as theft.

        Yes they do. The wealth being taken does not rightfully belong to the taker. That’s theft.

        I suggest you look for an anarchist country and go live there.

        Nope. I’m going to stay here and keep working to make government irrelevant.

        I highly doubt the US is going to eliminate taxes just to please you.

        I wouldn’t expect them to.

        Humans are not civilized enough that they can live without a government.

        Government doesn’t keep people civilized. Government is a constant threat to civilization. Shall I make a list for you of the things that governments do to innocent people, to disrupt their peace and destroy their lives? That evil which individuals may do, government transforms into a permanent institution.

        • vanshaak

          I almost couldn’t disagree with everything you said more.

          1. Even if you didn’t have taxes, you’d probably get paid less to more or less equalize to the amount of money that is taxed.
          That isn’t to mention all the benefits of having a government budget, like insurance, retirement, a minimum wage policy and more jobs created by the government, especially considering machines could replace a large number of jobs. With none of the 2 standards I just mentioned, life would be very unpredictable and probably very shitty.

          2. The mistake of having no government has already been made: look at the Articles of Confederation. That went disastrously, and the effects would only be exponentially worse with the mass industrialization of every single aspect of life in America. this should just be common sense that it wouldn’t work.

          3. Even if the country was freed of government, some rebel faction or country would roll in, fuck up our “militia” that has no supplies due to no budget from no taxes, enslave all of us or perhaps just kill us. Even North Korea probably could do us in at that point.

          I’m honestly a bit baffled how you passed history class. Everything I just mentioned is by someone with no experience in politics who didn’t even go into full detail. Imagine how many ways a dedicated blog post from Tim, for example, would display how bad of an idea it is.

          • AnarchyPrime

            Even if you didn’t have taxes, you’d probably get paid less to more or less equalize to the amount of money that is taxed.

            The amount you’re offered in salary/wages is unrelated to the expenses or taxes you face. The person paying you doesn’t care if half of that money goes to your taxes or if none of it does. Think about it. The money taken from you in taxes is supposed to represent a chunk of everything of value available in the market. You can’t expect someone to simply pay you more to offset whatever you have to give up to the government. Where would they get the money for that? Charge more from whoever is paying them? And where would those people get it?

            like insurance

            Never heard of insurance companies? Mutual aid societies?

            a minimum wage policy

            Which is a great thing if you want to keep black people unemployed.

            more jobs created by the government

            Before the government can “create” a job, it has to take money from other people who would’ve used that money to create a job. Then it processes that money through a huge bureaucracy before it can use it to “create” a job, which is a lot of overhead that the people they took the money from didn’t need.

            especially considering machines could replace a large number of jobs.

            You mean like…. washing dishes? Harvesting crops more cheaply so everyone can afford to get all the food they need?

            The mistake of having no government has already been made: look at the Articles of Confederation.

            Uhm… That wasn’t “having no government.” That was a government… under the Articles of Confederation.

            That went disastrously

            …for the aristocratic taxeaters.

            this should just be common sense that it wouldn’t work.

            “Common nonsense” would be more accurate.

            some rebel faction or country would roll in, fuck up our “militia” that
            has no supplies due to no budget from no taxes, enslave all of us

            So after we throw off our current slave masters, we wouldn’t do it again? Welp, the North Koreans have landed on our shores, and we only outnumber them 200 to 1. We might as well just roll out the red carpet for ’em. Freedom was fun while it lasted.

            Everything I just mentioned is by someone with no experience in politics …

            Well there’s your problem right there, kid. You’ve taken a couple state-funded history classes and now you think you know how the world works. If you want, I can link you to a decade’s worth of free books that will thoroughly explain everything that’s wrong with what you’ve been taught. History, economics, philosophy and ethics, political and legal theory… But first you’ve got to at least entertain the possibility that much of what you’ve been taught might be utter bullshit.

            • Matt

              you should read “The Real Lincoln” then you wouldn’t think he was a good president.

    • voscerote

      So wait are you saying you would have sided against abolitionists? Seems like you’re just being contrary. I see that you’re against government as a rule, but can you really deny the need to abolish slavery in the US? Those states were NOT going to do it. The problem wasn’t just that slavery existed, but that it existed as a huge industry.

      • AnarchyPrime

        Lincoln didn’t instigate war to end slavery. Slavery persisted in several Union states throughout the war. Lincoln’s express purpose was to enforce a protectionist tariff, the burden of which would fall heavily on the southern economy, and the proceeds of which would be used to subsidize the northern economy.

        Nor were Union troops themselves fighting to end slavery. Practically none of them would consider for even a moment the idea of leaving their homes and families to go fight, and possibly get maimed or killed, to make life better for blacks.

        I would’ve sided with the abolitionists, and against the Union.
        https://www.fourmilab.ch/etexts/www/NoTreason/NoTreason_chap19.html

        • voscerote

          Your link is just a long, editorial essay with no citations. It may be that all of your opinions are valid about people in government and their ulterior motives for the Civil War, but that long-form essay-style doesn’t do anything to support that opinion. Your belief that slavery was not a motivation for the Civil War may be true, but you have no sources, and Tim Urban does. He shows throughout the blog-post how tensions were rising over whether or not the remaining territories would allow slavery. In the brief survey of historical periods that this post provides, it’s pretty accurate with all historical references. You’d need to provide at least as much research showing that the Civil War was just a method to subjugate the people of the South. I grew up in the South. I heard that argument plenty of times, and it was pretty much 100% given by people that I can look back and say they were definitely racists. “The Civil War wasn’t about slavery”–racists always say this. The kind of people who secretly or not-so-secretly wish slavery weren’t abolished say this. So if you’re going to use the same argument and show how it belongs in the libertarian/anarchist camp and not the Klan’s rhetoric, the burden of proof is on you.

          • AnarchyPrime

            I know what that link is. It’s an essay written by abolitionist and lawyer Lysander Spooner, someone who tried to assist John Brown in starting slave uprisings. It’s posted on a personal website (which looks “crazy” because it’s relatively ancient), but they had no blogs in the 19th century. Spooner’s essay provides a contemporary analysis of the war, its causes, its aftermath, and the actions of the US govt. You questioned my position in your previous comment, so I provided a link to the essay to give you a better idea of where I’m coming from regarding the war. There is no honest or rational way in which Spooner or his writings can be associated with the views of racists.

  • Willard

    In the part about Jefferson’s pets, I think you typed “Louis and Clark” instead of “Lewis and Clark” by accident.

  • Jesus, Tim, you’re a smart guy. How about what Lincoln did to finance the North in the Civil War? And while we are at it, how about a post about, not the elephant in the room, but the elephant that ATE the room? I.e., the financial system.

  • jaime_arg

    “I always talk better lying down.”
    (In response to a niece asking him what was the matter)
    ((If you know what I mean…))

  • Sarah

    My favorite part: He cursed like a sailor, and as a result, so did his pet parrot. This caused a lot of problems, including the parrot having to be removed from Jackson’s funeral ceremony for cursing so much during the proceedings

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  • Karen

    My great grandfather was named Millard. Millard Harrison, to be exact.

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